Sunday, September 17, 2006

Mourning Dove

**Have you ever heard one? Their song is very resonant and unique, known for its melancholy quality. That high pitched wail of lament, while a poignant reminder of nature’s beauty, can also cut to the bone when it rings in your ear with a painful accusation of arrogance long regretted.
**I was very young and still discovering the wonders of being outdoors, as well as just starting to understand how my actions affected those around me. My parents were conscientious people that stressed the concept of personal responsibility to all their children, and we took it very seriously. Of course when the naivete of innocence meets the imagination of a growing mind sometimes things can go awry, especially when a brand new BB gun is involved.
**Mom and Dad were very adamant about the rules concerning my new ‘toy’ - no shooting at my brothers (aw shucks) and no shooting at any creatures of any kind. They gave me paper targets and some clay pigeons they had secured somewhere, then instructed me in it’s use, pointed me towards the small copse of trees beside our house and said "Have fun."
**Well as you can imagine I was in heaven! Heroes of the day were the Lone Ranger and GI Joe, guys that knew how to use a gun, and I wanted to be just like them. I was already well coordinated with keen eyesight so shooting was almost natural for me. I burned through the targets in no time, then shot the clay pigeons until the shards were too small to hit. My brothers got some soda cans and bottles which also rapidly became rubble. We had a blast! We took turns shooting at trees and making pretend we were soldiers on the front like John Wayne (Dad’s favorite) taking down the bad guys with our last few bullets. "Charlie Company attack!"
**One day while stalking through the woods by myself, a slight movement caught my eye. I froze and slowly turned imagining a sniper drawing a bead on me, but it was only a bird, a sparrow I think. It was about thirty feet away, it’s head cocked sideways to get a good look at the intruder disturbing an otherwise peaceful day. I don’t know if it was primal instinct or seduction by the darker side of human desire, but suddenly I went into hunter mode. Feeling confident in my skills I slowly brought the rifle up and lined the sparrow in my sights. Within seconds my heartbeat seemed to double, sweat began to pearl on my forehead and my parents words echoed in my ears, "No living things..." and I hesitated. The bird must have sensed danger and flitted up into the higher branches of the tree making the shot much more difficult. I stood there for a long time it seemed debating whether this was a good idea, then finally decided it would be OK as my friend Pat had told me these guns weren’t very powerful; his brother had shot him with one and it didn’t even break his skin. I just wanted to see if I could hit it, like a real live hunter, so once again I sought my target.
**The sparrow was in the tiniest branches up on top of a tree and every time the wind blew it swayed a little. I clenched my teeth trying to ignore the lower branches that kept dancing in and out of my field of vision, took a deep breath, then slowly squeezed the trigger. I watched the little brass projectile fly and neatly miss the mark. I cocked the gun and aimed again, adjusting slightly for wind and distance, then squeezed - whoa close enough to make feathers ruffle. Now my heart started thumping even harder in my chest, my mouth was so dry it hurt, I knew the next shot was going to connect. I drew my bead and swoosh, the sparrow took off. No!
**I was a jumble of mixed emotions, largely relieved that nothing bad had truly happened, but also slightly disappointed that I didn’t find out what the result of a direct hit would be. I had heard family and friends talk about hunting, I understood the concept of death, or so I thought, but I just didn’t see it as a possibility. I went to bed that night feeling strangely dissatisfied, like I had somehow been cheated, but as we lived out in the middle of nowhere I was sure I’d get another chance to see what would happen.
**A few days passed and while trying to decide which apple tree on the other side of our house to climb, I heard a very distinct birdsong that was not familiar to me. Instantly I began to inspect each of about eight trees, slowly circling every trunk looking into the foliage for a telltale nest or movement. At the far left corner of our little orchard was a small pear tree, my favorite come fall for the fruit was plentiful and sweet. As I approached it there was that song again and a frantic flapping of wings. I actually ducked as this robin-sized bird with a long tail swooped over my head; It was greyish or light brown and landed a couple trees over. I quickly ran towards it and it took off again heading away from the pear tree. After watching it duck behind the house I jogged back over to the pear tree and instantly spotted the nest. I watched it for a while from a distance but nothing came back, so my easily distracted mind was readily occupied with my previous plan of tree climbing.
**As I lay in bed that night I thought about that big bird with it’s piercing song and knew I could definitely hit it with a BB if I could catch it in the pear tree, there weren’t many little branches or fat leaves to hide behind, nor was it very high. I began to devise a strategy for getting close enough without being seen and fell asleep dreaming of dark brooding images that made me wake in a cold sweat.
**After breakfast I managed to ditch my nosy brothers and headed for the door gun in hand. Mom, as moms will, sensed my impending brush with impetuousness, and said "Where are you going young man?" I informed her that I was going down to the creek behind the cornfield in back of the house. She gave me that penetrating stare, certain there was more to the story but I was careful not to let the devilish urges inside of me leak through to the surface.
**"Well you just make sure to be careful mister, and don’t you point that thing at anybody, got it?"
**I nodded as I swung the door open and zoom, I was gone. Down the hill, over the stone wall and into the sea of green leaves that smelled of earthy life. My face was stung by slightly moist blades that whipped me as I flew through the orderly rows, my small heart beating like the jungle drums in an old Tarzan movie. This was it, today was the day I would shoot my first living target!
**Instead of heading straight I took a sharp right and trotted towards the end of our property line. I passed our well and started to head back up into the scrub brush that bordered our land just beyond the orchard. Now I became the hunter again; each step was carefully planned to eliminate noise, it probably took me fifteen minutes to go forty feet but it paid off. There about twenty feet away from the lilac bush I hid behind was the pear tree and sitting pretty as you please was that bird, it’s broad breast calling me like the glint off a soda bottle.
**With deliberation I brought the barrel up and put my sight right in the middle of that unsuspecting birds gut. I had no doubt it would connect and imagined how loud beak-brain would squawk before it flew away. Once again my heart raced and my mouth turned into a desert but at last I pulled the trigger. There was indeed a brief sound of surprise but what followed was far from my puerile misconceptions. The bird dropped like a stone and hit the ground, a couple of feathers floating down near it, to lay silently beside that lone pear tree.
**I sat for a second, stunned. Perhaps it’s just knocked out, yes that’s it, I’ll just let it rest for a minute then it’ll be OK. After a couple of the tensest moments in my life I began to approach my victim expecting it to jump up at any time and fly away. When it was at my feet I noticed the slight hint of red beneath it’s right wing and my heart sank. I dropped to my knees and gently picked up the wounded creature, tears beginning to stream down my cheeks. Staring into it’s beady black eye I saw the spark of awareness go and felt, actually physically felt, the life force ebb then fade completely from it’s broken body. I sat there holding the poor thing, unsure what to do. I couldn’t tell anybody because I’d really get in trouble plus I was ashamed, I had actually taken a life and it was not a pleasant feeling. While sitting there in my nauseous stupor I heard a soft sound above me and a sickening revelation struck like lightening, this bird was a mother! Now I had to see so I shimmied up the tree and sure enough there were two small chicks in the nest. Well this was a disaster, my refusal to obey my parents had not only resulted in one life but two more were now on the line. I would have to feed them until they could survive alone, that’s all there was to it. I would dig up a bunch of worms and come every few hours to fill their little bellies.
**Burdened with pangs of unshakeable guilt, I buried the mother and headed back to the house with a sick feeling in my stomach but full of resolve to make up for my horrific act. I kept reliving that moment of senseless death in my mind, certain my folks could sense the evil that now tainted me. After a while I went back to the pear tree and to my great dismay the chicks were now at the base of the tree themselves quite motionless. They must have started crawling around when their mother didn’t come back and now they were gone too. This was too much for my young sensibilities to handle, I didn’t deserve to live! I ran back to the house and up to my room where I cried myself to sleep.
**Upon waking I felt slightly better physically but still devastated mentally. I knew I would never shoot the BB gun, or any gun for that matter, at anything ever again, but I had still caused death and this was anathema to me. I eventually told my friend about my crime and he informed me what kind of bird it had been. Turns out they’re considered game birds so hunting them is actually sanctioned but that never justified what is still to this day the most shameful thing I have ever done. I still like to walk in the woods, reveling in the abundance of life that thrives despite the careless acts of humans such as I, confident that at least my own actions will never cause deliberate suffering again, and occasionally I hear that haunting trill somewhere in the wild and stand for a moment with my head bowed in respectful remembrance.


Anonymous said...

Hey Bob, very good! A story we all can relate to. There are some things about ourselves that we just have to learn the hard way. Those are the things we never forget and shape who we are. This story is a great example of that childhood curiosity that often got us into trouble but also taught us to ponder the consequences of our actions.

ozymandiaz said...

The whisper breezed thru out the grove
The implication delved and dove
The whisper caressed from tree to tree
All of the eyes they turned to me

Anonymous said...

Gee, the call of the mourning dove is distressing enough. Now you have this extra burden!